Strong private sector, citizen support key to Iloilo’s success
ILOILO CITY—This city, the economic center of Western Visayas region, has just proven that investments in people’s health and a strong public sector support are perfect ingredients for a postpandemic economic recovery.
Mayor Jerry Treñas said that while other localities were still on their way to recovery from the impact of the pandemic, Iloilo City had fully recovered and it seemed the health crisis had never happened.
When the country stood still following the community lockdowns imposed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, Treñas stopped all local government projects and focused its resources on what needed to be attended to at that time—public health.
Iloilo City was the first city outside Metro Manila to establish a molecular laboratory, which charged a fraction of the amount for tests for asymptomatic patients. It also extended PhilHealth coverage to residents showing symptoms of COVID-19.
At least 240 community kitchens were set up in 180 villages. Plus, pandesal and other bread products donated by the city’s business sector flowed to ensure that no one would go hungry.
The city government provided dormitories to health workers. It sourced and later produced its own personal protective equipment (PPE) at the time when supplies of PPEs were scarce. People from all walks of life extended donations to provide food, transportation, services and equipment to those worst affected by the quarantine measures and health workers in the front lines.
The city worked hard to secure vaccines against the COVID-19. As a result, the vaccination rate here breached 177 percent.
Due to its successful response to the COVID-19 crisis, some netizens tagged Iloilo City the “Wakanda of the Philippines,” referring to the fictional country in Marvel’s “Black Panther” that is self-sufficient and isolated from the outside world.
“But that is very Ilonggo. We always help each other,” said Fulbert Woo, president of Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) Iloilo.
Woo said the mindset then was everybody had their share of food and should work together. When the mayor then said it was time to go back to work after the restrictions had been lifted, everybody followed, he added.
To bring the city to the next level, Treñas instituted what he called “WHEELS” for sustainable development, as all programs of the city either involve or affect the city’s “welfare, health, education, environment, livelihood and sustainability.”
“In short, we are vying to be the country’s third most livable city,” he said.
Asked why settle for third, he smiled: “We don’t want to appear mayabang (arrogant).”
“What do we mean by livable? It (the city) has to be a walkable city; Iloilo is walkable. It has to be bikeable; Iloilo is bikeable. All [public] places are within 15 minutes. We are [rehabilitating] all the plazas. We are doing all the markets,” he said.
Ease of doing business
The city has entered into a private-public partnership with SM Prime Holdings for the redevelopment of the Central and Terminal Markets, the city’s two biggest public markets.
Treñas said SM would construct modern but “green” public markets with ample parking spaces, rainwater harvesting systems and solar panels. The city will continue to run the markets but SM will get a portion for its Savemore chain, he added.
The city has also made it easy to do business here by coming up with off-site payment centers where one can pay permits and taxes. The city also separated the Office of Building Official from the City Engineer’s Office and had been working closely with the Anti-Red Tape Authority to ensure no delays.
The city, Treñas said, also has a very strong business process outsourcing (BPO) industry being a “university city” as it is home to eight universities and 18 colleges, which produce topnotchers in licensure exams.
The problem now is that Iloilo City is running out of BPO buildings since these have been all leased out. Even those that have not been built yet are already taken by BPO companies.
“They (BPO companies) all want to come here,” he said. “The way of life here is more relaxed, at the same time you can do almost anything you want to do in Metro Manila without the traffic.”Since the BPO sector is firmly established in the city, both the city government and the business sector want to position Iloilo City as a MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) destination as part of the plan to bring in tourists.
Mae Tamayo Panes, director of PCCI Iloilo, said that when Iloilo City was launched as a MICE destination in October 2019, the bookings for convention centers and hotels shot up. Then the pandemic struck five months later in March 2020, triggering widespread cancellations.
But Iloilo City has always been ready to embrace its role as a MICE destination. It has the Iloilo Convention Center (ICC) at the Iloilo Business Park in Mandurriao District, which is a stone’s throw away from hotels, restaurants and shopping malls.
The ICC, which can easily be recognized by its iconic exterior that resembles Paraw Regatta sailboats, can seat 3,700 at the main hall on the ground floor, has 500-seat function rooms on the second floor, and a 1,500-square-meter space on its rooftop.
Aside from the food, the city’s heritage is another come-on for investors and tourists.
It has at least 10 museums spread all over the city as well as heritage houses.
“You don’t know that you are buying pandesal [baked] in a 200-year old oven,” Panes said. “They don’t demolish old houses here.”
Treñas said that aside from rehabilitating the six plazas here, he also added they were developing at least three parks, not just to protect the environment but also for the people’s mental health.
“We see a lot of heritage here and we protect our heritage. We are strong in the environment. We take care of the environment. Even in the river, you can fish; we have sea bass there. We are the only city that has an esplanade,” said Treñas, referring to the 9-kilometer Iloilo Esplanade, a linear park along the Iloilo River.
There is also a strong, collaborative relationship among the city, the private sector and citizens.When the city government thought of creating a logo for its tourism slogan, Treñas suggested that this be made into a contest to allow public participation.
Woo also credited the mayor for consulting with PCCI before real property taxes were increased in the city.
“Iloilo City is fair because there is constant collaboration,” he added.
Public support, Treñas admitted, is essential to how things are done here and the city has been lucky in this aspect.
“It is because the government has been transparent and inclusive. Even in the logo, people have a say; we didn’t just come up with something and asked everyone to support it. We are inclusive and transparent and here, we work with everyone,” Treñas said. INQ